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Archive for the 'Cerys Bradley' Category

This Little Piggy went to Market…

By Cerys Bradley, on 6 December 2017

One of the objects on display as part of the Grant’s Ordinary Animals exhibition is a jar of piglets. These particular specimens often receive a lot of attention, probably because the piglets are so small and visitors are surprised to discover what they are. I was happy to see them included in the exhibition because piglets are used by other researchers in my department (the Department of Crime and Security Science) and so they provide a useful launching pad to engage visitors in my research.

The specimen in question, courtesy of the Grant Museum.

This tactic has had varying success. The way pigs are used in Crime Research is fascinating but can also be a bit gruesome — perhaps too gruesome for some visitors. Pig skin, and flesh, is similar to that of humans and so can be used to conduct experiments in the absence of a human cadaver. For example, a colleague, Sian Smith, whose PhD research focuses on 3-D digitisation methods for sharp-force traumas, studies stab wounds she has made in pigs. A number of her experiments have required her to transport pig parts to Mile End cemetery where they are buried and left to decompose before being photographed so that the images can be used to create 3-D models. Her work has potential applications in crime scene forensics, as well as for providing evidence in court, or even archaeological research on burial sites and other human remains.

I think this story is fascinating and can start many different conversations about how crime research is conducted and used. But, I have learned very quickly not all visitors feel the same way. For example, I made the mistake of telling this exact tale to a pair of visitors who were vegan. Concerned by the use of living things in order to meet the needs of humans, they were not very impressed by this particular research project. Perhaps, I should have guessed that they were not my target audience. Whilst I have met many visitors in the museum who have backgrounds in forensics or who like to preserve animal remains as a hobby, many more visitors haven’t ever seen anything like the Grant Museum’s collection outside the museum itself. I now make sure I check with visitors whether or not they want all the gory details before launching into my stories.

It is worth pointing out, however, that a reason that piglets are often used in research is because it is not uncommon for mothers to kill their young accidentally (by rolling over on them) leaving farmers or other pig owners with piglets that they cannot raise but can sell to labs instead. The vegan visitors that I spoke to felt that — as the pigs were not killed for the purpose of research — it seemed reasonable to use their bodies in this manner. Incidentally, both visitors were organ donors and intended to leave their own bodies to science. We spent a great deal more time discussing the use of animals in scientific, but non-medical, research which made for very interesting chat, if not exactly where I saw the conversation from the start.

Add Like an (Ancient) Egyptian

By Cerys Bradley, on 12 October 2017

As student engagers, we work in each of the museums no matter how far from our own disciplines they are. I study cybercrime which is not clearly related zoology, art, or Egyptology; as a result, I have received many looks of surprise from visitors when they discover someone working in the museum is not an expert in the subject matter. To be a better student engager, I have learned a lot about the history of each museum and researched many objects so that I can answer questions and provide useful information to visitors, but I also like to talk about subjects related to my discipline. For the Grant Museum, this means talking about a study which looked at the trade (or lack thereof) of endangered animal souvenirs on the Dark Net; for the Art Museum, I talk about an art exhibition displaying objects purchased at random from Dark Net Markets. However, I have always struggled to link my research to Archaeology and the objects at the Petrie.

Instead, I like to talk about my undergraduate degree: Mathematics. There is evidence that the Ancient Egyptians had not only a counting system but prolifically and pragmatically used Mathematics. Records show that they used maths for accounting, architecture, and astronomy, amongst other things. Their techniques enabled a complex tax system and were even adopted by Greek mathematicians such as Pythagoras.

Papyrus showing mathematical calculations in Hieratic script.

Papyrus showing mathematical calculations in Hieratic script.

However, Egyptian mathematics was very different to that which we use today. Whilst they also used a base 10 system, at first they only had symbols for the numbers 1, 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000 and 100,000. This made writing numbers sometimes laborious – to write the number 7, you would need to write the hieroglyph for the number 1 seven times. The numbers 2-9 were added later after they began writing on papyrus using the Hieratic script instead of Hieroglyphs.  Fractions were denoted using a specific symbol and could only be of the form 1 , with a 1 as the numerator. This system made addition and subtraction simple but other tasks, such as multiplication, much more complex.

To do these more complex computations, the Ancient Egyptians would combine addition and subtraction in brute force methods that would provide approximations of the answer. For example, to multiply two numbers together, they would add the first number to itself the second number of times in a process of doubling not unlike the way computers are now programmed to do. As an illustration, to calculate 3 × 4 they would double 3 (that is 3 × 2) and then double 3 again (that is 3 ×(2+2)=3 ×4.

They would also rely on pre-calculated times tables to increase the speed of their work and prevent them from having to repeat the same problems again and again. This is believed to be the case because some of these tables have survived to today. For example, object UC32159 is a section of papyrus that displays division tables containing the answers to 2 being divided by the odd numbers from 3 to 31.

Remains of papyrus showing the division of 2, written in Hieratic script.

Remains of papyrus showing the division of 2, written in Hieratic script.

The collections in each of UCL’s museums are so large and varied that there will always be something relevant and of interest to anyone who visits.

Question of the Week: Bird vs Reptile

By Cerys Bradley, on 8 September 2017

Yesterday, in the Grant Museum, I was asked why reptile and bird eggs are different. I did not know that reptile and bird eggs were different, let alone why. I have now investigated this question and prepared a pretty egg-cellent answer (if I do say so myself).

Bird eggs and reptile eggs are different in a couple of ways (besides the fact that one comes out and contains reptiles and the other birds). They can differ in shape, shell, and colour. These differences are not universal across the classes and science cannot explain why all of the differences have occurred, so this answer isn’t going to be egg-xact but I will try and be as thorough as possible.

So, first, the egg shape. Reptiles have symmetrical eggs where as some birds lay eggs which are, well, egg-shaped: i.e. asymmetrical as they are tapered at one end. A popular explanation for why bird eggs are often this shape is that it prevents them from rolling off of cliffs as they, instead, roll in a circle. However an enormous study conducted at Princeton University has provided data to debunk this theory. The study, which examined almost 50,000 eggs from more than 1,400 species found a correlation between the egg shape and wing shape in bird species. This points to the egg shape to more likely being a product of a bird’s flight adaptation than where they nest. You can read the study here.

The second distinction is in the shell – birds lay eggs with hard shells where as some reptile species lay soft-shelled eggs. Why might be the case? Well, if a mother cannot lay a hard-shelled egg at its full size, it could lay a soft-shelled egg instead allowing the egg to eggspand (not the technical term) after laying. Additionally, a soft shell has the capacity to absorb moisture from the atmosphere and ground. For some reasons, birds have evolved such that their eggs don’t need additional moisture, which is not the case for some species of reptiles. For the opposite reason, some turtle species will lay hard shelled eggs if they also lay their eggs in wet environments as this stops the egg absorbing too much moisture.

Another reason reptiles lay soft-shelled eggs is because of the way they are incubated. Birds will sit on their eggs and use the warmth of their bodies but reptiles tend to utilise the natural heat of vegetation or the earth to incubate their eggs. As reptile eggs don’t have to be strong enough to protect the unborn contents from the full weight of its parent, they can be soft-shelled.

Finally, most reptile eggs are white in colour whereas bird eggs are lots

A pretty symmetrical looking Ostrich Egg (Ostriches, famously, not great flyers).

A pretty symmetrical looking Ostrich Egg (Ostriches, famously, not great flyers).

of different, some would say eggstraordinary, colours. As with the shape, science cannot prove a definitive answer for why this is the case. However, there is a theory which has, in part, been developed by comparing reptile and bird eggs. Bird eggs are often kept in much more conspicuous places than reptile eggs – in open nests as opposed to buried underground or hidden in a crevice. As such, bird eggs can benefit from camouflaging to their surroundings, which would require them to come in a wider variety of colours.

So, there you have it, for the most part, eggs is eggs. However, reptile and bird species have evolved different characteristics specific to their environment. If you have any more questions, come visit the Grant Museum or tweet them at us.

The Grossest (Coolest) Things in the Grant

By Cerys Bradley, on 23 June 2017

The female Surinam Toad grows her young in small sacks on her back. To impregnate her, her male partner will inseminate her eggs and then lob (not the technical term) those eggs into her back cavities where they hatch. Her young will develop to toadlets before bursting out and going about their life. In the Grant Museum there is a Surinam Toad specimen caught after her toadlets (young toads) have vacated but before she has shed her skin to prepare for the next reproductive cycle. The result is a display of dimples that will make your skin crawl if you have trypophobia – an irrational fear of seeing an irregular pattern of holes in places you wouldn’t expect to see them. I think the Surinam Toad is really gross and, when asked by visitors “what is the most disgusting thing you have here?” this is the specimen I show them. But, whilst they are being weirded out by its back, I explain its back story and truly fascinating reproductive habits because, even though I don’t want to look at the toad, I do want to learn about it.

The underside of a Surinam Toad (W332) with its gross back hidden from view. Click here to see examples of its back sacks, if you dare.

There are a lot of objects in the Grant Museum that are equal parts disgusting and interesting. That is very much to be expected when your collection centres around objects used to study anatomy and collected by Victorian scientists for whom “squeamish” was something that happened to other people. Of course, not everyone thinks that the objects in the Grant Museum are gross, some people do only see scientific objects of historical importance. I am not one of those people, but I still love working in the Grant and sharing its objects with visitors. Even the ones I don’t like looking at, or rather, especially the ones that I don’t like looking at because they are all valuable objects with interesting histories that tell us something incredible about the world. For this blog post, I have chosen my top five (only five!) grossest objects from the Grant Museum so that I can explain why I also think they are remarkable.

  1. The Surinam Toad, which we have already covered, though I would also like to point out that the male toad embeds the female’s eggs on her back whilst she is doing somersaults so, on top of everything else, this species has pretty good aim.
  2. The Jar of Assorted Lizards – you may be familiar with the Jar of Moles but, one shelf down, there are some assorted lizards which I think are cooler but they don’t get as much attention because they don’t have as good of a PR guy. There are a lot of jars containing multiple specimens in the museum, which may seem odd because you can’t really get a good look at the things inside them. This technique was used, however, because putting things in jars can be expensive and, having lots of jars requires a lot of storage space. So, if you were storing your specimens, not because you wanted to look at them but, because you wanted to study them you could be a bit more practical and put them all in the same jar. Jars of multiple specimens would have been used to conduct repeat experiments or for class demonstrations or practicals (take one and pass it on). I like these objects because they are a great example of how the Museum collection was originally a teaching collection, even if the thought of ever reaching my hand into a jar is not one I enjoy dwelling on.

    Jar of Assorted Lizards (X1286). How many lizards can you count? (There are no prizes.)

  3. The Exploded Skulls – when I first started working at the museum, I thought these were art pieces (which is not a bad guess as the Museum often displays pieces of art inspired by the collection). They look very CSI and it is a tad unnerving to see a skull displayed so that it looks as though it has been ripped to pieces. But, these are actually examples of an ingenious technique designed to solve a teaching problem. Let’s say, hypothetically, you wanted to teach your students about horse skulls. You could bring a horse skull to show them but it might be difficult to demonstrate that the skull is comprised of individual bones. Instead, you could bring your students a little pile of horse skull bones and they could examine the individual pieces but they then might struggle to work out which piece was which or imagine the skull as a whole. Beauchene was a technique developed in the 19thC in France where the skull is taken a part and then fixed back together using wires producing what looks like a skull mid way through and explosion. It allows you to see the skull as a whole and as being comprised of separate pieces simultaneously and even to remove single pieces of skull. These skulls look like Halloween ornaments but are also ingenious teaching tools. 

    An exploded cod skull (V1486). Learn how to make one here.

  4. The Negus Collection – this collection draws quite a lot of attention and I find it interesting to listen in on visitor conversations as they work out what each of the animal heads are. The specimens in the collection are really good examples of things that you don’t want to look at but can’t tear yourself away from. They contain so much information and allow you to see and incredible amount of detail, but I really can’t get over how meaty they look. Victor Negus, the doctor who prepared these specimens used them to study the throat, in doing so he discovered cures for a number of diseases and also understood, for the first time, the evolution of the larynx and how it enabled us to produce speech. Some people, particularly children, find the display a bit upsetting (there is a bunny rabbit in the collection, after all) as, of all the objects in the Museum, this one does seem to be the clearest reminder that this science was conducted on a lot of dead animals. But, it is also a good example of how important this collection was to science and medicine at the time. I like to explain Negus’s discoveries to visitors because it starts a conversation about how these objects were once used and the scientific learning they facilitated.

    An example of a crocodile head from the Negus Collection (X1211). Is it laughing at you? Only in your nightmares.

  5. The Flying Squirrel – this specimen, to be quite frank, looks like a tiny, shrivelled alien. Unfortunately, the preserving fluid in this specimen is running very low and serves as a vivid reminder that all of the specimens in the Museum require a lot of care. Currently the Grant is undergoing a long term project, called Project Pickle, to conserve the wet specimens in need of a top up. But, until this specimen’s jar is topped up he is going to look a bit sad and cold to me.

So, those are what I consider to be the grossest objects in the Grant. They are also some of my favourite objects as they each tell us a lot of nature or the historical context of the collection, or how the collection is studied now. There are many other objects in the Grant that are bit unsettling, why don’t you tweet us your favourites with the hashtag #grossestthinginthegrant and we will send you back an interesting fact about them.

Museum Audio Guide Project

By Cerys Bradley, on 21 March 2017

I have been a student engager for almost a year now and the more time I spend in each of the museums, the more I come to realise that there’s an incredible amount to learn about them. Obviously, a museum with 30,000+ objects in it contains a lot of knowledge, but, even beyond that, there are so many more ways of studying and thinking about each object and collection than I ever imagined. Each museum is bursting with questions about not only the objects they house but their histories and the lives of the people who made and worked in them. So, after each of my shifts, I have been writing down all of the questions that I have been asked by visitors or thought of myself whilst wandering around and I have done my best to answer them. The resulting catalogue of information is enormous. It is too much knowledge to fit on traditional, tiny museum placards and too much for any one student engager to learn and recite for visitors (not least because each of the museums is only open for four hours at a time). Thus, the UCL Museum Audio Guide Project was born.

This project, funded and encouraged by UCL Culture, will produce three sets of podcasts, one for each of the museums, to act as audio tour guides. They will be free, downloadable from your usual podcasting app, and tailorable to your visit. Each museum will have a short tour of only an hour, and an extended cut closer to two and a half hours (which is still the tip of iceberg, really) as well as a number of themed tours. For example, the Grant Museum will have an evolutionary biology themed tour which will tell listeners all about the history of evolutionary theory and the role the Grant played in its development.

Now, I am not an expert in Evolutionary Biology, nor in Egyptology, Anatomy or Art. Luckily, I have had a lot of help making the audio guides and, so far, have interviewed a number of researchers and members of staff at each of the museums. I have spoken to Jon Thompson of the Slade School of Fine Art; Debbie Challis at the Petrie Museum;  Stacy Hackner, Max Pinarello and Alice Stevenson from the Institute of Archeology; Professor Joe Cain, Head of Science and Technology Studies at UCL; and Sarah Doherty from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Each of their interviews will make it into the audio guides along with many others so that listeners will get to learn about the objects from world leaders and experts.

Planning and recording the interviews has been excellent and I have learnt a lot about each of the museums already. Just this week, I spoke to Sarah Doherty, a Ceramicist and Archaeologist, for over an hour and a half just about pots. I did not realise there was so much to learn about pots. As it turns out, shards of pottery can be used to understand almost every aspect of Ancient Egyptian life from their diets to their lifestyles to their technological advancements. I have also learnt that you can do an entire PhD on the tibia bone because it, too, can tell archaeologists incredible things about the lives of people thousands of years ago.

Learning about the fascinating museum collections has been the best bit of the audio guide project (which is easy to say because editing is boring and takes ages) but I still have a way to go. The collections at UCL are enormous and so, even with the restrictive time limit of two and a half hours of material, I have many more interviews scheduled and planned. Unfortunately, the first audio guide isn’t likely to be ready for another few months but this does mean there is still plenty of time for you to get involved.

Do you have a question about the museums? And, I mean any question, from “How old is this object?” to “Why are these things all in this cabinet together?” to “Who found this?”, then tweet me (@hashtagcerys) and we’ll put your question (and its answer) into the audio guide.

When tasked to find a photo, I thought I’d find the specimen with the biggest ears (for listening).